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Biden Their Time

What Democrats in Congress Think About Biden’s Alarming Young Voter Problem

The president’s support among Gen Z has plummeted since he endorsed Israel’s bombardment of Gaza.

Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

Democratic nominees for president have long counted on dominating the youth vote to help propel them to victory, and that held true for Joe Biden in 2020. A record number of young voters turned out that year, with Gen Z (those aged 18–23 in 2020) and millennials (24–39 at the time) favoring Biden over then-President Trump by a 20-point margin.

But that trend is in danger of being shattered next year. Biden’s support among these voters, Gen Z in particular, is eroding like the cliffs of Malibu. A November poll by NBC News found that Biden was trailing Trump by four points among voters aged 18–34, and a New York Times/Siena College poll released this week found that Trump leads by six points among voters aged 18–29. These are not outliers; they’re the new reality.

And the cause seems clear: Biden’s support for Israel’s siege of Gaza, which has killed around 20,000 Palestinians and displaced more than one million people. As the Times’ Nate Cohn noted about the poll, young voters who supported in 2020 and are sympathetic to Palestine are the likeliest to report shifting their support to Trump. (Trump himself has vowed that he would reject Palestinian refugees from the United States and has not called for Israel to limit civilian casualties, saying that “you have to let things play out.”)

Other recent polls have also found that younger Americans are more likely to have more sympathy for Palestinians than Israelis; although Biden has recently warned Israel against “indiscriminate bombing” of civilians, young voters may be more likely to blame the president for America’s largely unwavering support for Israel.

Representative Becca Balint, a progressive Democrat from Vermont, said that she understood why young voters may feel disillusioned with Biden about his response to the conflict in Gaza. “I’m not trying to be dismissive of young voters at all,” said Balint, who was the first Jewish member of the House to call for a cease-fire. “I certainly understand that impulse, and that is on us to make the case that … these two options [for president] are not equally bad.”

Not everyone is alarmed by the polling numbers of late. Jack Lobel, the press secretary for Voters of Tomorrow, an organization focused on engaging young voters, was skeptical that Trump could actually siphon votes from Biden on Election Day.

“To get an accurate sense of how young voters are going to vote, look at how they are voting,” said Lobel, highlighting recent statewide elections that have seen Democratic gains. “And in recent months, in Virginia, and Ohio, and Kentucky, we’ve seen the young voters largely resonate with President Biden’s ideology and … continuing to vote out our right elected officials from office.”

But engaging young voters could prove difficult in 2024, when there may be pervasive apathy about the presidential election. The annual Harvard Youth Poll, released in December, found that only 49 percent of voters aged 18–29 “definitely” plan to vote in 2024, versus 57 percent at this point in the 2020 election cycle.

Biden had an 11-point edge over Trump in a head-to-head matchup, the Harvard poll found. However, 69 percent of young voters who favored Biden said their vote would be more in “opposition to Donald Trump becoming president again” than out of support for the president. When third-party candidates such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Cornel West were thrown into the mix, support for Biden further weakened among young voters. (Some other recent polls, including a Quinnipiac poll released on Wednesday, have shown Biden ahead of Trump by a wide margin in a two-person race, although that survey also showed Kennedy siphoning votes from both.)

“Our poll has suggested that there’s a real enthusiasm problem for the president,” said Ethan Jasny, student chair of the Harvard Public Opinion Project. “Back in 2020, for many young people, Biden wasn’t their first choice … they came around and voted for him because they saw the existential threat that was Trump.”

While young Republican and independent voters say they are less likely to turn out than their Democratic counterparts, the decrease in voting enthusiasm is most significant for younger Black Americans and younger Hispanic Americans—key voting blocs for Biden and other Democrats.

With an increasingly dysfunctional Congress, some issues most important to young voters—such as climate change and gun violence—are only addressed with relatively incremental legislation. Other efforts by Biden to appeal to young voters have been thwarted, as when the Supreme Court blocked his attempt to forgive student loans. Some Democrats worry that if young voters feel let down, that frustration could translate into inaction—or even a vote against Biden.

“We’ve got to make sure that voters, especially young people, see themselves as part of the fight, rather than fighting to make [their priorities] happen,” said Representative Maxwell Frost, a Democrat and the first member of Generation Z to serve in Congress.

Ongoing congressional negotiations over immigration and border policy may also have political ramifications, as the Biden administration has reportedly given tacit approval to changes in asylum and parole policy that could anger younger and more progressive voters. “They would turn off young voters, Latinos, immigrants. It’s not something that we want to do or we should do,” Frost said about the potential deal on border policy.

Representative Pat Ryan, a Democrat whose upstate New York district includes several college campuses, argued that the dissatisfaction among young voters was not necessarily personal to Biden, but in part due to lack of faith in the functioning of government. For example, Gen Z saw the U.S embroiled in two decades of war in Afghanistan and Iraq—spanning most, if not all, of their lives—with little to show for it. “The trust in institutions to get it right is so low,” Ryan said.

Some young voters’ frustrations may stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of how government operates; in a recent interview with NBC News, one young voter faulted Biden for failing to codify Roe v. Wade after the Supreme Court overturned the federal right to obtain an abortion. Democrats have introduced legislation to codify Roe in Congress, but they don’t have enough votes in the Senate to overcome a Republican filibuster, and it wouldn’t pass in the GOP-controlled House anyway.

“Part of what we have to do over the next few months until the election is connect the policies of President Biden that are very popular with young people—from fighting for abortion rights to delivering the largest amount of money in climate action in history—to the actual administration, and to this ticket,” said Lobel, referring to the Inflation Reduction Act, which invested hundreds of millions of dollars in policies to combat climate change.

Another potential advantage for Biden: Abortion has become an increasingly important issue for young voters, and the president plans to make access to the procedure a key plank in his campaign. Moreover, the Harvard poll found that 45 percent of all young Americans—including 56 percent of registered voters—said they would “definitely” vote in 2024 if there was a ballot initiative or referendum related to abortion in their state. Several critical states, including Florida, Nevada, and Arizona, may have abortion-related initiatives on the ballot in 2024.

If Biden and Democrats want to earn young voters’ trust and support in the upcoming election, they will need to make a particular effort to appeal to that demographic. “Young voters have the most at stake in the next election. Abortion will be on the ticket, student loan debt will be on the ticket, housing and health care will be on the ticket,” Senator Elizabeth Warren told me. “We need to work hard to get all the pieces right.”